6/13/14 – THE BULWER-LYTTON FICTION CONTEST: WHEN REALLY BAD IS REALLY GOOD
Are your writing chops good enough to craft rotten prose? I mean, really rotten prose. If they are, it’s time to prove it by submitting to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the competition that asks contestants to create a first sentence to an utter bomb of a novel. With enough skill, that sentence will equal or surpass the famous stinker produced by the contest’s namesake, Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (Paul Clifford, 1830)
The confusing tangents! The meandering, florid language! It takes talent to create something so fundamentally over-written.
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University. The department has sponsored the competition ever since. In its first year of existence, the contest attracted three entries. But the next year, fueled by public announcements and media attention, approximately 10,000 awful entries poured in. This mother lode of cringe-worthy badness couldn’t help but produce quality gold:
The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selena fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails–not for the first time since the journey began–pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil. (Gail Cain, CA, 1983 Grand Prize winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest)
It’s only natural to assume that the namesake of this illustrious contest was something of a literary hack. He wasn’t. Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton was born in London in 1803 and died in 1873. His writing career began in 1820 with the publication of a book of poetry, and it never let up. Poetry, novels, plays–Bulwer-Lytton produced them all (sometimes anonymously), and they helped support an extravagant, eccentric lifestyle. He was extremely popular with the reading public, and his bestselling novels earned him a fortune. Not only was Bulwer-Lytton prolific, he coined a few phrases we still recognize today, among them “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” and “the great unwashed.” Against his wishes, he is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Of course, authors want to be remembered for their works, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery … except when it isn’t:
The heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a crowded pub, hunched precariously over the moors, their rocky elbows slipping off land’s end, their bulbous, craggy noses thrust into the thick foam of the North Sea like bearded old men falling asleep in their pints. (Gary Dahl, CA, 2000 Grand Prize winner)
Are you intrigued? Inspired? Do you have what it takes to step into the ring? The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is easy to enter. The official deadline is April 15th, the actual deadline is June 30th, and the contest accepts submissions all year round. And, as if that weren’t enticing enough, the grand prize winner receives “a pittance.” Who wouldn’t want to dive right in? (You can check out the official contest website at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/)
Just be aware that you will be playing with the “big boys,” writers so adept at their craft that their final products are exquisitely, addictively bad. You’ll be up against the best … I mean the worst … I mean this:
She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. (Chris Wieloch, WI, 2013 Grand Prize winner)
Good luck. May the farce be with you.